Another early morning, another bad pot of coffee. Regardless, we're out the door by 6:15 with our destination just 10 minutes up the road: Courtyard of the Patriarchs.
I was set to scramble down to the river for what I thought would be some nice valley-and-river sunrise shots, but Dan gently suggested that we head up the hill behind us for a grander view of the Patriarchs. And, yes: he was right. A short asphalt 'trail' leads to a viewpoint -- already manned by a photographer -- so we clambered up higher and higher. We finally reached a glorious spot probably 100 meters higher than the road, unobstructed by trees (no mean feat) with almost a 180° view of the ramparts in front of us. We had again arrived in time to capture the pre-dawn glow I so like. Soon the sun's rays hit the top of the cliffs and how quickly the light changed. From a soft, warm, orange-ish fuzz to bright yellow and quickly (too quickly!) -- once the shadow curtain has completely fallen -- to a harsh white light. I capture the progression of the sun's path on the far walls in both color and IR, before we and the dawn quit.
Down the hill and to the Virgin River we go, as I originally wanted. Good thing that Dan suggested uphill for the sunrise: the view of the Patriarchs was significantly blocked from the river side. I capture a few nice reflections in the rapidly flowing river and manage to lose one of my tripod's rubber foots in the soft, enveloping mud. (Note to tripod manufacturers: do something about this. Do I have to super glue all of those rubber buggers?)
Next stops, the ranger station to pick up a permit for The Subway and then some real coffee again at Mean Bean Coffee House. The Subway has become one of those iconic locations that we so love to discovery and then love to death. What Delicate Arch is to Arches National Park, The Subway is becoming to Zion, or so I submit. In its favor, it is a slog of a hike from the Left Fork trail head, as I find our fairly quickly. This and the permitting system which limits the number of people in the canyon on a daily basis, prevents hoards of casual hikers from cluttering up the view and experience. A short 15 minutes from the trailhead we start the steep 250 meter descent to the Left Fork of North Creek. The guidebooks suggest you wander upstream looking for trails on either side of the fortunately low creek. We do this and it is a slow 4 mile hike to the first set of miniature falls that mark the near-beginning of The Subway proper.
The creek itself is beautiful with high sandstone walls on either side that keep us almost perpetually in the shade. We see occasion rockfalls that look quite recent and I am reminded how nothing is static; that this landscape is dynamic, just on a scale difficult for us to appreciate. We encounter a fellow explorer/photographer at the first set of small cascading falls. Up until this point the solitude was sublime. Proceeding a bit further upstream we encounter another photographer who has lugged a heavy 8 x 10 large format camera and has it positioned with his almost equally heavy tripod over a joint in the sandstone that is overflowing with rushing water.
Around the corner lies The Subway, certainly one of the most amazing canyons I have seen. The approach to the narrow funnel is long and I can only wonder at the force of water that courses through during flash floods. Dan tells me that the log in in this image was further upstream the last time he was here.
The pools coupled with the strangely warm glow of the Subway itself make extremely compelling photographic subjects. I spend well over an hour within a 10 meter square area composing and shooting long exposures, trying to capture the unique nature of this space. The rock is wet, slick and tricky to walk on and soon my feet are chilled to the bone (as they say) and I need to seek the sun of the outer canyon while Dan works his 4 x 5. The day grows long and based on Dan's previous experience (best left to him to tell) and advice, you don't want to be caught in the canyon after dusk, so we begin to head downstream.
Some of the cascades are still partially in the sun and make interesting visual compositions but the dappled nature of the water and rock don't translate well via a camera.
However, the sun continues to drop and we reach a stretch of shaded creek that is absolutely gorgeous and amazingly rich with copper tones. Dan has to practically drag me away from the scenes and the logical part of my brain says "go, fly with the light!" or some such poetic nonsense.
The slog out is long but our way is helped by the discovery that the main section of the unmaintained trail stays pretty much on the right-side (faced downstream) of the creek and so our journey is quicker than our way in. Nonetheless, the sun has already set by the time we reach the base of the cliffs and the steep climb out of the canyon. Up, up, up we go.
I pass a young man sitting on a rock who asks for water (which I give, having drank little of it myself) and wonders aloud whether he can make it. I tell him that he is less than 45 minutes from the trailhead and victory will surely be his soon. (The drill sergeant in me wants to add: "if you stop complaining, get off yer arse and start putting one foot in front of the other!" - but, I refrain.)
Once on top, the last 1/2 hour goes quickly but not without a wee bit of confusion. In the gloom of post-dusk, my night-adjusted eyes can follow the trail through the junipers with no problem until I reach a wash where tracks go in every which direction. I can't really recall the wash when we hiked in some 6 hours earlier, but I make a decision to continue out of the wash on the now faint and fading trail, which of course turns out to be the correct decision. At the trailhead, wishing for a beer (ALWAYS pack a cooler with beer for trail's end, dude!) I watch the moonrise and capture a last night shot.
Dan's knee is killing him (2 weeks shy of surgery) and so it's an early night and dinner back at the motel restaurant, the Switchback Grill. Not bad at all and the beer is cold.